Inspiring a new generation of green leaders

Partnership for Public Service
Monday, April 19, 2010; 11:57 AM

Cynthia Nolt-Helms celebrates Earth Day every day - not just at a once-a-year celebration in April.

As a program manager at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Nolt-Helms' daily task is to encourage college students to think about how to preserve the earth for future generations, and to encourage them to be proactive. Nolt-Helms accomplishes these goals through the EPA's P3: People, Prosperity and Planet Awards program, a prestigious competition that motivates college students to research, design and implement innovative solutions to meet today's pressing environmental challenges.

One past winner was The Learning Barge in Newport News, a solar and wind-powered floating classroom built to facilitate river clean-up and to inspire ecology education. Another winning college student team developed a hydropower project in a village in India. The team engaged the local community in its efforts, demonstrating the potential for cross-cultural collaboration and international impact of the program.

"One of the neat aspects of the P3 program is that it gives the students freedom to decide where they can advance sustainability," Nolt-Helms said. "They come up with the ideas for how to make the world a better place, and we just facilitate the funding for them to implement their plans."

The two-phase awards competition strives to inspire students to submit projects in a wide range of categories, including alternative energy technologies, collection, purification and distribution of water, agricultural practices to reduce pesticide run-off, new technologies for green buildings and much more.

Initially, the EPA presents $10,000 grants to interdisciplinary student teams to use to develop their projects throughout the academic term. The following spring, the second phase of the program is featured as part of the annual National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., when 42 teams exhibit their projects and compete.

The winning teams receive up to $75,000, providing an opportunity to further their designs, implement them in the field, and move them to the marketplace. Last year, teams from six universities won awards at the national competition.

"I do believe we will continue to face significant challenges, and I don't think those will be solved by any single solution," Nolt-Helms said. "The Expo allows you to see the small-scale, incremental solutions that will be part of the answers."

This year's Expo is scheduled to take place on the National Mall on April 24 - 25 during the EPA's Earth Day celebration and includes a wide range of entries.

There is a roadside wind turbine project from Penn State University, a biomass gasification project for agricultural energy sources and soil enrichment from Appalachian State University, and a system to convert waste wood into ethanol fuel developed by students from the University of California, Riverside.

"These teams are competing in the Expo, but you don't walk into that tent on the Mall and feel like they're contending against each other," Nolt-Helms said. "Instead, you feel a sense of camaraderie, optimism and a shared sense of purpose."

Gail Bentkover, Nolt-Helms' EPA supervisor, said the awards program attracts amazing entries from college students all over the country, and has grown in popularity and creativity.

"Cythnia has taken an innovative environmental research grants program and turned it into a symbol of EPA's success," Bentkover said. "She operates a program that is training professionals who will be the next generation of green leaders and helps students navigate the enormous transition from academic study to accountability for real results."

"The Expo is a wonderfully energizing experience with such palpable enthusiasm and optimism," Nolt-Helms said. "It is a joy to be a part of it, and it makes me hopeful about the future."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Visit for more about the organization's work.

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